Sunday, 2 February 2020

Bratislava: a new city in a new country
with a culture that is centuries old

Symbols of Slovakia in a souvenir shop in Bratislava … do you know your Slovakia from your Slovenia? (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It was my first-ever visit to Bratislava, and my first time to visit Slovakia.

I had already visited in Prague, the capital of the neighbouring Czech Republic, but this was my first visit to the other republic and to the other capital of the former Czechoslovakia.

Some months earlier, I had visited Gorizia or Gorica, a city straddling the borders of Italy and Slovenia. But I found myself wondering how many people know their Slovakia from their Slovenia.

Bratislava Castle towers above the city and the banks of the River Danube (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Although Bratislava is centuries old, it has only been known by its present name for the past 100 years. Until 1919, it was mostly known in English by its German name, Pressburg, and sometimes by its Hungarian name, Pozsony.

The new name caused confusion a century ago, because Wrocław, now in west Poland, was long known in German as Breslau, in Czech as Vratislav and in Latin as Vratislavia, as its political status shifted between Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Prussia, Germany and Poland again.

To make confusing names even more confusing, Bratslav is the name of a mediaeval city in central Ukraine, also known as Braclaw and Bretslov.

Journalists were confused in 2018 when the Prime Ministers of Slovenia and Slovakia resigned in the same week. But the confusion between Slovakia and Slovenia has existed since the 1990s, when they became two of the newest countries in Europe.

Neither country borders the other, yet both have borders with Austria and Hungary. Slovakia separated from the former Czechoslovakia at the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in 1992, formed a new state in 1993, and joined the European Union in 2004. Slovenia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and joined the EU in 2004.

The Old Town Hall dates from the 14th century (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Slovakia and Slovenia have similar names, similar flags, and a similar history. Slovakia calls itself Slovenská Republika, while Slovenia is Republika Slovenija. One language is known to its speakers as Slovenčina, the other as Slovenščina, a letter rather than a word or a world of difference. To their residents, these countries are known as Slovensko and Slovenija; and among those residents, Slovenka in Slovak means a Slovak woman; Slovenka in Slovene means a Slovene woman.

The flags of these two countries are almost identical, with white, blue and red horizontal stripes and an heraldic shield displaying mountain peaks. The wrong flag is often flown at diplomatic gatherings, and the wrong anthem is often heard at sporting fixtures.

George W Bush famously once talked about a meeting with the Foreign Minister of Slovakia, when he had met the Foreign Minister of Slovenia. At a press conference in 2003, Silvio Berlusconi introduced Anton Rop, then Prime Minister of Slovenia, as the Prime Minister of Slovakia.

Saint Michael’s Gate and Tower … part of the old city walls (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

A city of culture

As an important cultural city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bratislava attracted the great composers of the day, including Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms and Rubinstein.

Today, the attractions of Bratislava include Saint Martin’s Cathedral, the Gothic churches, the palaces, castles and museums. With its antiquarian bookshops, street sculptures, squares, cafés and riverside walks along the banks of the Danube, Bratislava is a charming European capital, growing in popularity as a city-break destination.

There is archaeological evidence of Celtic settlements in the third century BC, and early Roman settlements too.

Bratislava has more than 50 churches, cathedrals, chapels and places of worship, including Saint Martin’s Cathedral. After Bratislava Castle, it is the second most visited place in the city.

The cathedral stands beneath the slopes of Bratislava Castle at the west edge of the old city centre, and its 85-metre spire dominates the skyline of the old town. Saint Martin’s Cathedral is the largest and one of the oldest churches in Bratislava, and it was the coronation church of the Kings of Hungary from 1563 to 1830.

The Opera House at night … Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms and Rubinstein all visited Bratislava (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Long before the cathedral was built, the site had been the crossroads in the old town centre, with a market and perhaps also a chapel. At the time, the main centre of worship was a chapel in the castle that was rebuilt in the eight century and replaced in 1221 by a second dedicated to the Saviour.

Saint Martin’s Cathedral … once the coronation church for Habsburg emperors as Kings of Hungary (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

The old church could not meet the needs of a growing city, and a new, three-nave, Gothic cathedral was built in 1311 as part of the city walls, with its tower serving as a defensive bastion in the mediaeval fortifications.

Because of the geography of the site, a lack of funding and the Hussite Wars in the early 15th century, the cathedral was not completed until in 1452.

Inside Saint Martin’s … the cathedral was completed in 1452 (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Royal coronations

For two or three centuries, from 1563 to 1830, Saint Martin’s was the coronation church for the Habsburg emperors as Kings of Hungary, after the Ottoman Turks captured Székesfehérvár. The Crown of Saint Stephen was placed on the head of Maximilian II, son of Emperor Ferdinand I of Habsburg, on 8 September 1563.

In all, 11 Habsburg kings and queens and eight of their consorts were crowned here, including the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. This role is marked to this day by the 300 kg gilded replica of the Hungarian royal crown perched on top of the 85-metre tower. It weighs 150 kg, is over 1 m in diameter, and rests on a 1.2 m × 1.2 m gold-plated pillow and stands 1.64 m high. The pillow and crown contain a total of 8 kg of gold.

The statue of Saint Martin depicts him as a typical Hungarian hussar (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

The first monumental work of central European sculpture made from lead can be found inside the cathedral. It depicts Saint Martin as a typical Hungarian hussar mounted on his horse, bending to a beggar and cutting his coat to share it with a poor beggar to protect him from the cold.

The catacombs and crypts beneath the cathedral contain the sepulchres of many significant historical figures, including Jozef Ignác Bajza, author of the first Slovak novel.

The cathedral and the neighbouring diocesan seminary are surrounded by cobbled side-streets, courtyards and steep steps. But the structure is threatened by the vibrations caused by heavy traffic on the access ramp to the nearby Nový Most bridge, known popularly as the ‘UFO bridge’.

The intricate and handsome door of the Jesuit Church beside the Old Town Hall (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

I was staying in the old city off Františkánska Street, originally a street leading up to Bratislava Castle. The Franciscan Church, dating from the 13th century, is the oldest surviving religious building in the Old Town. It is said it was built by King Ladislaus IV of Hungary after his victory over King Ottokar II of Bohemia in 1278, and it was dedicated by King Andrew III of Hungary in 1297. In this church, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I was elected King of Hungary in 1526.

The Ursuline Church nearby stands on the site of the first mediaeval synagogue in the city. This was a Protestant church until the 17th century. The Jesuit Church of the Holy Saviour Church, in a square beside the Old Town Hall, was also Protestant church in the 17th century, first built in 1636-1638 to serve the German-speaking Protestants of Bratislava.

The Chatam Sofer Memorial and the grave of Bratislava’s most revered rabbi (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

The Holocaust Memorial commemorates the 105,000 Slovak Jewish victims of the Holocaust (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Centre of Jewish life

For centuries, Bratislava was an important centre of Jewish life. A royal decree in 1229 granted the Jewish minority equal rights. Several hundred Jews were living in Bratislava in the 14th century, with a synagogue, a cemetery, a mikveh and other public Jewish institutions.

In the first half of the 15th century, Jews were forced to live in a Jewish ghetto on Židovská Street (Jewish Street), known as Judengasse, beneath the castle. They were expelled and returned several times.

The former ‘Neolog’ Synagogue commemorated on Rybné Square (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Beside a tunnel that runs under the castle, the Chatam Sofer Memorial commemorates the city’s most famous Jewish scholar, Rabbi Moses Sefer (1762-1839), also known as Chatam Sofer. Limerick’s last rabbi, Simon Gewurtz (1887-1944), was from Bratislava.

When the Slovak State was formed in March 1939, the pro-Nazi regime imposed discriminatory measures against the Jewish population. More than 15,000 Jews were living in Bratislava in 1940. The deportation of Jews from Slovakia began on 25 March 1942. German forces occupied Bratislava in September 1944 and most of the remaining 2,000 Jews in the city were sent to Auschwitz.

The Steiner Antiquarian bookshop … a cultural landmark that survived the Holocaust (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

About 3,500 Jews from Bratislava survived World War II. Of the 30,000 Jews who remained in Slovakia, 90% emigrated in the following months and years, and the former Jewish district in Bratislava came to an end when the ‘UFO’ bridge was built in the 1960s. The Heydukova Street Synagogue is the last surviving synagogue in Bratslava.

The Holocaust Memorial on Rybné Square, beneath Saint Martin’s Cathedral, was erected in 1996 to commemorate the 105,000 Slovak Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the ‘Neolog’ synagogue that once stood in this square.

Čumil ‘the watcher’ or the ‘Man at Work’ is hardly bothered by his daily tasks (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Street sculptures

If Bratislava’s castle and cathedral are its most visited sites, then its most photographed treasures are the sculptures and statues throughout the Old Town.

They include statues of people who pop up on street corners or behind park benches. Among them are poets, playing children, playful workers and Hans Christian Andersen, the children’s storyteller, who visited Bratislava in 1846.

Čumil ‘the watcher’ or the ‘Man at Work’ is the work of Viktor Hulik and seems to be climbing out of a hole at the corner of Rybárska Street and Panská Street. One rumour says he is a typical communist-era worker who is hardly bothered about his daily work. He has been loitering on this street corner since 1997.

‘Schone Naci’ or ‘Handsome Ignatius’ greets people on the corner of Sedlárska Street. Unlike other statues cast in bronze, this statue by Juraj Melis is the only one in the old town that is in silver.

The statue is named after Ignác Lamár, who lived in Pressburg, the former name of Bratislava, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Although he appears handsome and jolly, one story says his fiancée was deported to a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust and never returned. He never recovered psychologically from the trauma and spent his remaining days wandering the streets in a top hat and tails, smiling at everyone.

Another story says he was in love with a woman who sadly did not return his love. He was so disappointed that he went mad and you could often see him giving flowers to random women he met in the streets.

‘Handsome Ignatius’ never forgets his fiancée deported to a concentration camp during the Holocaust (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Urban myths

There is a popular urban myth in many European capitals that claims diplomats from the Slovak and Slovene embassies meet regularly to exchange mail that has gone to the wrong address.

I wonder whether Donald Trump is ever confused. Melania Trump was born in Slovenia, while Ivana Trump was born in what was then Czechoslovakia. There is more than a wall that separates the two; indeed, they are separated by a whole country, Hungary.

Certainly, by the end of my visit to Bratislava, I could no longer understand how anyone could confuse Slovakia and Slovenia.

This feature was first published in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) in February 2019

The ‘UFO Bridge’ spans the River Danube (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Bidding prayers and
intercessions at Candlemas,
Feast of the Presentation

The Presentation window in Saint Flannan’s Church, Killaloe, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

These bidding prayers and intercessions were used this morning [2 February 2020], on the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas) at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, and Morning Prayer in Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry:

Bidding Prayer:

Dear friends, forty days ago we celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we recall the day on which he was presented in the Temple, when he was offered to the Father and shown to his people.

As a sign of his coming among us, his mother was purified according to the custom of the time, and we now come to him for cleansing. In their old age Simeon and Anna recognised him as their Lord, as we today sing of his glory.

In this Eucharist / At this Morning Prayer, we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion.

So let us pray that we may know and share the light of Christ.

Intercessions at Candlemas:

In peace let us pray to the Lord:

By the mystery of the Word made flesh
Good Lord, deliver us.

By the birth in time of the timeless Son of God
Good Lord, deliver us.

By the baptism of the Son of God in the river Jordan
Good Lord, deliver us.

For the kingdoms of this world,
that they may become the Kingdom of our Lord and Christ
We pray to you, O Lord.

For your holy, catholic and apostolic Church,
that it may be one
We pray to you, O Lord.

For the witness of your faithful people,
that they may be lights in the world
We pray to you, O Lord.

For the poor, the persecuted, the sick and all who suffer;
that they may be relieved and protected
We pray to you, O Lord.

We pray in silence for our own needs
and for the needs of those we have offered to pray for …
We pray to you, O Lord.

For the aged, for refugees and all in danger,
that they may be strengthened and defended
We pray to you, O Lord.

For those who walk in darkness and in the shadow of death,
that they may come to your eternal light
We pray to you, O Lord.

Father, source of light and life,
Grant the prayers of your faithful people,
and fill the world with your glory, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

‘The child’s father and
mother were amazed at
what was said about him’

Two turtle doves … a detail in the Presentation window by the Harry Clarke Studios in Saint Flannan’s Church, Killaloe, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 2 February 2020,

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas)

11:30 a.m.: Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry, Morning Prayer 2.

The Readings: Malachi 3: 1-5; Psalm 24: 1-10; Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2: 22-40.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple … a stained-glass window by the Harry Clarke Studios in Saint Flannan’s Church, Killaloe, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas, is the climax of the Christmas and Epiphany season. It is a feast rich in meaning, with several related themes running through it – presentation, purification, meeting, and light for the world.

Jewish law required that every boy was circumcised eight days after his birth, bearing the mark of the covenant on his skin. But Jewish law also expected every first-born boy to be consecrated to God (see Exodus 13: 2, 12; Numbers 3: 13).

So, eight days after his birth, the Christ Child was circumcised, marking him as Jew and as a member of God’s people. Then, 40 days after his birth, he is brought to the Temple to be presented to God.

Parents were expected to bring an offering with them: a lamb and a turtledove or a pigeon. But if they were poor, two turtledoves or pigeons would do instead.

It is a sign of their poverty that the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph bring two cheap turtle doves or pigeons as their offering, probably bought in the courtyard in the Temple after they had changed their hard-earned Roman coins for Temple coins without the emperor’s image.

In this Gospel account, Simeon is an old and pious man who looks forward to the coming of the Messiah to restore Israel to favour with God, the consolation of Israel (παράκλησιν τοῦ Ἰσραήλ, paráklesin tou Israel, verse 25). The Holy Spirit has promised Simeon that he will see the Christ before he dies.

Simeon’s words are paraphrased in the canticle Nunc Dimittis. He begins by saying that God is setting him free, as a slave is granted liberty. Simeon knows now that he is free to die. God’s promises are being fulfilled, not only for Jewish people alone, for Israel’s glory, but for all people.

Through this child, God’s people are going to see God’s promises extended to all people or nations in the fulfilment of that promise to all people, the Gentiles.

Simeon then blesses the family and tells the Virgin Mary that this Christ Child is destined for death and resurrection. None of the beauty he sees for the whole world is going to come about easily. This child is going to suffer, so much so that Mary’s pain is going to be like a sword piercing her heart.

Like Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna stand before God, in God’s presence, in humility and in equality.

This Feast of the Presentation is also known as Candlemas. It is a feast rich in meaning, with several contrasting themes.

We have the contrast between the poverty of this family and the richly-endowed Temple; the young Joseph and Mary with their first-born child and the old Simeon and Anna who are probably childless; the provincial home in Nazareth and the urbane sophistication of Jerusalem; the glory of one nation, Israel, and light for all nations, the Gentiles; the birth of a child and the expectation of death; darkness and light; new birth and impending death.

Simeon’s words remind us sharply that Christmas is meaningless without the Passion and Easter. As we bring our Christmas celebrations to a close, this day is a real pivotal point in the Christian year, for we now shift from the cradle to the cross, from Christmas to Passiontide – Ash Wednesday and Lent are just four or five weeks away.

This is the day that bridges the gap between Christmas and Lent, that bridges the gap between a time of celebration and a time of reflection, a time of joy and a time for taking stock once again.

So, there are a few points that are worth emphasising as we reflect on this morning’s Gospel reading.

1, All children are valuable before God. In God’s eyes, every child is a blessing.

It is irrelevant how rich or poor the parents are. God has taken on our human nature in the birth of Christ. We are made in God’s image and likeness, and now God takes on our image and likeness.

The suffering of every child is suffering that God understands.

We have seen the suffering of too many children and the piercing of the hearts of too many parents in the past week or two, from Bandon and Cork to Drogheda, and to Newcastle in Co Dublin.

There are no explanations, there are no ways of preventing calamities like this, and there are no ways of fixing what has gone wrong.

But if we want to know where God is in all these tragedies, God is weeping and crying, with the children and with the parents. Every life matters.

In Jewish law, the first-born son was presented like this as a reminder that God does not demand the sacrifice of the first-born, a superstition that was once prevalent in ancient religions in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

God loves and values each and every child, because God knows what it is to be one. And God loves and values each and every suffering parent, because God the Father has seen the suffering of his own Son.

2, After a week in which we have been reminded of the horrors of Auschwitz 75 years ago, it is good to be reminded this morning that God’s promises to all humanity came through God’s promises to the Jews, and are fulfilled in this one Jewish child.

3, Class, social status, age, wealth, poverty, ethnicity, religious or language barriers do not exist in God’s eyes. The poverty of this family is very obvious to everyone in the Temple that day. But they are blessed by this old woman and this old man, Anna and Simeon.

God’s promises come in the most unexpected bundles, at the most unexpected times, in the most unexpected places.

4, As Simeon reminds us, God’s promises are not confined to one people. Christ has come among us to bring light to all nations, to the Gentiles.

The words used for all people (πάντων τῶν λαῶν, panton ton laos) in verse 31 mean nothing less than all people. The word used for the Gentiles (ἐθνῶν, ethnon) is not just referring to people who are not Jews in religious terms, but refers to people of all ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

God’s promises are for all children, all people, all nations.

5, We are going to vote in this country in a general election on Saturday. It is a freedom that we enjoy in this country, it is a duty, a right, a privilege and a responsibility, and one we should exercise carefully and thoughtfully.

I have no right to tell you how I may vote next Saturday, and it would be wrong for me this morning to even hint at which way I may vote.

In Anglican liturgy we pray in the versicles and responses:

Let your ministers be clothed with righteousness
and let your servants shout for joy.

Those words are ambiguous enough to make no distinction between ministers in the Church and ministers in the Government. Both are set aside to serve, and politics must be affirmed as honourable lay ministry, serving the people.

It is important, then, in this final week of the election campaign, to ask politicians seeking election how they plan to serve people in the light of this morning’s Gospel story.

How are they going to serve the needs of children living in poverty?

How are they going to serve the needs of parents and families living in poverty?

How are they going to look after the needs of the elderly who look for consolation?

How are they going to be beacons of light all nations, particularly in the aftermath of Brexit and the rise across Europe of what is described as populist politics but is truly a cover for hatred and racism?

How are they going to respond to the presence of other people among us … the needs of refugees, asylum seekers, migrant workers?

The candles of Candlemas link the candles of Christmas with Good Friday and with the Easter hope symbolised in the Pascal candle.

And so to paraphrase the words of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn that draw on Simeon’s prophetic words in the Canticle Nunc Dimittis, as we watch and wait in our faithful vigil for Christ’s glory in that Easter hope, may our doubting cease, may God’s silent, suffering people find deliverance and freedom from oppression, may his servants find peace, may he complete in us his perfect will.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple … a stained-glass window in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 2: 22-40:

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

‘Candlemas 2012’ (York Minster) by Susan Hufton … from the recent exhibition ‘Holy Writ’ in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: White.

Bidding Prayer:

Dear friends, forty days ago we celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we recall the day on which he was presented in the Temple, when he was offered to the Father and shown to his people.

As a sign of his coming among us, his mother was purified according to the custom of the time, and we now come to him for cleansing. In their old age Simeon and Anna recognised him as their Lord, as we today sing of his glory.

At this Morning Prayer, we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion.

So let us pray that we may know and share the light of Christ.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty and everliving God,
clothed in majesty,
whose beloved Son was this day presented in the temple
in the substance of our mortal nature:
May we be presented to you with pure and clean hearts,
by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Collect of the Word:

Strong and mighty God,
Father of our Lord Jesus,
the presentation of your Son in the Temple
was his first entrance into a place of sacrifice.
Grant that, trusting in his offering on the cross
to forgive our sins
and uphold us in the time of trial,
we may sing your praises
and live in the light of your salvation, Jesus Christ.

Introduction to the Peace:

In the tender mercy of our God
the dayspring from on high has broken upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (cf Luke 1: 78, 79)
(Common Worship, p. 306)

Blessing:

Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,
fill you with his grace
to trust his promises and obey his will:

The Presentation or Candlemas … a stained glass window by the Harry Clarke Studios in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Athlone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

193, In his temple now behold him (CD 12)
Canticle 9: Nunc Dimittis (CD 42, # 9).
175, Of the Father’s heart begotten (CD supplied)
691, Faithful Vigil ended (CD 39)

The Presentation in a window in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Kilmallock, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The Presentation or Candlemas … a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘For my eyes have seen
our salvation … prepared
in the presence of all peoples’

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple … a stained-glass window in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 2 February 2020,

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas)

9:30 a.m.: Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2).

The Readings: Malachi 3: 1-5; Psalm 24: 1-10 or Psalm 24: 7-10 or Psalm 84; Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2: 22-40.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple … a stained-glass window by the Harry Clarke Studios in Saint Flannan’s Church, Killaloe, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas, is the climax of the Christmas and Epiphany season. It is a feast rich in meaning, with several related themes running through it – presentation, purification, meeting, and light for the world.

Jewish law required that every boy was circumcised eight days after his birth, bearing the mark of the covenant on his skin. But Jewish law also expected every first-born boy to be consecrated to God (see Exodus 13: 2, 12; Numbers 3: 13).

So, eight days after his birth, the Christ Child was circumcised, marking him as Jew and as a member of God’s people. Then, 40 days after his birth, he is brought to the Temple to be presented to God.

Parents were expected to bring an offering with them: a lamb and a turtledove or a pigeon. But if they were poor, two turtledoves or pigeons would do instead.

It is a sign of their poverty that the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph bring two cheap turtle doves or pigeons as their offering, probably bought in the courtyard in the Temple after they had changed their hard-earned Roman coins for Temple coins without the emperor’s image.

In this Gospel account, Simeon is an old and pious man who looks forward to the coming of the Messiah to restore Israel to favour with God, the consolation of Israel (παράκλησιν τοῦ Ἰσραήλ, paráklesin tou Israel, verse 25). The Holy Spirit has promised Simeon that he will see the Christ before he dies.

Simeon’s words are paraphrased in the canticle Nunc Dimittis. He begins by saying that God is setting him free, as a slave is granted liberty. Simeon knows now that he is free to die. God’s promises are being fulfilled, not only for Jewish people alone, for Israel’s glory, but for all people.

Through this child, God’s people are going to see God’s promises extended to all people or nations in the fulfilment of that promise to all people, the Gentiles.

Simeon then blesses the family and tells the Virgin Mary that this Christ Child is destined for death and resurrection. None of the beauty he sees for the whole world is going to come about easily. This child is going to suffer, so much so that Mary’s pain is going to be like a sword piercing her heart.

Like Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna stand before God, in God’s presence, in humility and in equality.

This Feast of the Presentation is also known as Candlemas. It is a feast rich in meaning, with several contrasting themes.

We have the contrast between the poverty of this family and the richly-endowed Temple; the young Joseph and Mary with their first-born child and the old Simeon and Anna who are probably childless; the provincial home in Nazareth and the urbane sophistication of Jerusalem; the glory of one nation, Israel, and light for all nations, the Gentiles; the birth of a child and the expectation of death; darkness and light; new birth and impending death.

Simeon’s words remind us sharply that Christmas is meaningless without the Passion and Easter. As we bring our Christmas celebrations to a close, this day is a real pivotal point in the Christian year, for we now shift from the cradle to the cross, from Christmas to Passiontide – Ash Wednesday and Lent are just four or five weeks away.

This is the day that bridges the gap between Christmas and Lent, that bridges the gap between a time of celebration and a time of reflection, a time of joy and a time for taking stock once again.

So, there are a few points that are worth emphasising as we reflect on this morning’s Gospel reading.

1, All children are valuable before God. In God’s eyes, every child is a blessing.

It is irrelevant how rich or poor the parents are. God has taken on our human nature in the birth of Christ. We are made in God’s image and likeness, and now God takes on our image and likeness.

The suffering of every child is suffering that God understands.

We have seen the suffering of too many children and the piercing of the hearts of too many parents in the past week or two, from Bandon and Cork to Drogheda, and to Newcastle in Co Dublin.

There are no explanations, there are no ways of preventing calamities like this, and there are no ways of fixing what has gone wrong.

But if we want to know where God is in all these tragedies, God is weeping and crying, with the children and with the parents. Every life matters.

In Jewish law, the first-born son was presented like this as a reminder that God does not demand the sacrifice of the first-born, a superstition that was once prevalent in ancient religions in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

God loves and values each and every child, because God knows what it is to be one. And God loves and values each and every suffering parent, because God the Father has seen the suffering of his own Son.

2, After a week in which we have been reminded of the horrors of Auschwitz 75 years ago, it is good to be reminded this morning that God’s promises to all humanity came through God’s promises to the Jews, and are fulfilled in this one Jewish child.

3, Class, social status, age, wealth, poverty, ethnicity, religious or language barriers do not exist in God’s eyes. The poverty of this family is very obvious to everyone in the Temple that day. But they are blessed by this old woman and this old man, Anna and Simeon.

God’s promises come in the most unexpected bundles, at the most unexpected times, in the most unexpected places.

4, As Simeon reminds us, God’s promises are not confined to one people. Christ has come among us to bring light to all nations, to the Gentiles.

The words used for all people (πάντων τῶν λαῶν, panton ton laos) in verse 31 mean nothing less than all people. The word used for the Gentiles (ἐθνῶν, ethnon) is not just referring to people who are not Jews in religious terms, but refers to people of all ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

God’s promises are for all children, all people, all nations.

5, We are going to vote in this country in a general election on Saturday. It is a freedom that we enjoy in this country, it is a duty, a right, a privilege and a responsibility, and one we should exercise carefully and thoughtfully.

I have no right to tell you how I may vote next Saturday, and it would be wrong for me this morning to even hint at which way I may vote.

In Anglican liturgy we pray in the versicles and responses:

Let your ministers be clothed with righteousness
and let your servants shout for joy.

Those words are ambiguous enough to make no distinction between ministers in the Church and ministers in the Government. Both are set aside to serve, and politics must be affirmed as honourable lay ministry, serving the people.

It is important, then, in this final week of the election campaign, to ask politicians seeking election how they plan to serve people in the light of this morning’s Gospel story.

How are they going to serve the needs of children living in poverty?

How are they going to serve the needs of parents and families living in poverty?

How are they going to look after the needs of the elderly who look for consolation?

How are they going to be beacons of light all nations, particularly in the aftermath of Brexit and the rise across Europe of what is described as populist politics but is truly a cover for hatred and racism?

How are they going to respond to the presence of other people among us … the needs of refugees, asylum seekers, migrant workers?

The candles of Candlemas link the candles of Christmas with Good Friday and with the Easter hope symbolised in the Pascal candle.

And so to paraphrase the words of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn that draw on Simeon’s prophetic words in the Canticle Nunc Dimittis, as we watch and wait in our faithful vigil for Christ’s glory in that Easter hope, may our doubting cease, may God’s silent, suffering people find deliverance and freedom from oppression, may his servants find peace, may he complete in us his perfect will.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Two turtle doves … a detail in the Presentation window by the Harry Clarke Studios in Saint Flannan’s Church, Killaloe, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 2: 22-40:

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

‘Candlemas 2012’ (York Minster) by Susan Hufton … from the recent exhibition ‘Holy Writ’ in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: White.

Bidding Prayer:

Dear friends, forty days ago we celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we recall the day on which he was presented in the Temple, when he was offered to the Father and shown to his people.

As a sign of his coming among us, his mother was purified according to the custom of the time, and we now come to him for cleansing. In their old age Simeon and Anna recognised him as their Lord, as we today sing of his glory.

In this Eucharist, we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion.

So let us pray that we may know and share the light of Christ.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty and everliving God,
clothed in majesty,
whose beloved Son was this day presented in the temple
in the substance of our mortal nature:
May we be presented to you with pure and clean hearts,
by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

In the tender mercy of our God
the dayspring from on high has broken upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (cf Luke 1: 78, 79)
(Common Worship, p. 306)

Preface:

And now we give you thanks
because, by appearing in the Temple,
he comes near to us in judgement;
the Word made flesh searches the hearts of all your people,
to bring to light the brightness of your splendour:
(Common Worship, p. 306)

Post-Communion Prayer:

God, for whom we wait,
you fulfilled the hopes of Simeon and Anna,
who lived to welcome the Messiah.
Complete in us your perfect will,
that in Christ we may see your salvation,
for he is Lord for ever and ever.

Blessing:

Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,
fill you with his grace
to trust his promises and obey his will:

The Presentation or Candlemas … a stained-glass window by the Harry Clarke Studios in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Athlone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

193, In his temple now behold him (CD 12)
175, Of the Father’s heart begotten (CD supplied)
691, Faithful Vigil ended (CD 39)

The Presentation in a window in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Kilmallock, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The Presentation or Candlemas … a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)